This summer Rachel and I have been gearing up for something we both thought we would never do – homeschooling! For a variety of reasons we have discerned this is the best path for our family in the near-term. As we have tried to dig ourselves into the world of curriculum for elementary school age children, we have found out just how much education has changed since we were little! One of our favorite resources that we stumbled upon as we’ve tried to put together a stellar plan is the “timeline” song used by some who take the classical approach to education. If you have never heard it before, you should look it up on Youtube. It is sung to a relatively catchy tune for elementary age children and will refresh your memory on everything you were once taught in history classes that you have long forgotten. The song lasts almost 13 minutes and ends with a reminder to the children that they are now part of the time-line of history and indeed can make some history of their own!
Ecclesia is coming up on 10 years since we “officially” started this Fall. Our time-line began with a collection of 4 churches scattered across the country who envisioned a family on mission with one another. The task of cultivating faithful expressions of the gospel in community seems more daunting now than when we first began a short decade ago. The cultural landscape in the US has changed a great deal during that time, presenting great challenges to the people of Jesus who wish to provide a faithful and compelling witness. Yet, with those great challenges are also great opportunities.
As I’ve thought about Ecclesia’s timeline and the timeline of many of the churches within our network, I know that many of you have experienced a season of challenge in the last year. Some of you hoped that the challenges of 2016 would not carry into a new year. For some that has turned about to the case, for others you find yourself still amidst of hardship. In many ways, what the churches of Ecclesia experience in their life is what “we” as a network experience. If it’s a tough year financially for you, it becomes a tough year financially for us. If you are navigating thorny issues and conflict, we are navigating thorny issues and conflict, because we are committed to walk together. Simultaneously, when new people enter the kingdom of God, or a family or neighborhood begins to be transformed, we all celebrate that with one another.
As I look over our collective timelines and with the jingle of the “timeline” song in my head, it’s a relief to remember that history is full of ups and downs, of seasons of fruitfulness and seasons of pruning. The fruitfulness comes in cycles, as does the pruning. Some years back Mike Breen spoke at our Ecclesia National Gathering and he reminded us that in seasons of pruning, our primary task is to abide (John 15). We draw close to Jesus during those moments, we place ourselves mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically at rest and under his care. We connect ourselves more to the source of life and in so doing, we will be renewed when the season of fruitfulness comes again. Just as we are intended to abide and Christ during those moments, I hope that we can also abide/remain/be connected to one another. For those who are in a different season, we celebrate with you and share in the joyful progress of the ministry Christ has given to your hands and heart. It’s a tangible reminder that these seasons come and go. In truth, it’s rare that fruitfulness and pruning are that distinct from one another. The reality is that often they are both happening simultaneously, but our experience is identified by one more than the other.
Recently I was visiting a network church and talking with one of our pastors who was sharing with me how they occasionally lament that they don’t have a building as it often feels like a barrier to growth in their community. He then went on to tell me how his wife recently corrected him about his lamentations as they have 80-100 people within their congregation who really “get it” and are genuinely pursuing Jesus and His mission. As he sat with those words he told me that he came to see what a beautiful thing he has caring for in those 80-100 people. I couldn’t agree more.
Whether you have 500-1000 in your congregation (as some churches in Ecclesia do) or 30-40 (as others do), helping the people of Jesus loves to grow up into the measure of the statue of the fullness of Christ is an awesome and history making task within itself, particularly as you help them come to understand their role in the great time-line of God’s kingdom action here on earth. Each week you preach or pray or create or counsel is a critical task. And, in spite of the odds, we can take great joy in knowing that those who have gone before and those who will come after have felt this same way. So, let’s take joy in hardship and celebration and let’s do it together!
I know many leaders within Ecclesia who are happy to put 2016 in the rear view mirror. While any year in church leadership is full of a mixture of highs and lows, successes and failures, and moments of God’s Action or (seeming) inaction, 2016 seemed to tip toward the challenging for many in Ecclesia.
I can’t think of another year since Ecclesia began where more congregations were …
- Faced with financial challenges
- Grappling with how to maintain scriptural fidelity to Orthodoxy while the climate around us becomes increasingly secular
- Experienced significant transitions in leadership within the congregations
- Dealt with significant conflicts that shake up the entire congregation, or at best, put a strain among staff.
- And of course, this is not to mention the peculiar season we face in the United States in the church’s relationship to the political process.
Yes, 2016 was a year of obstacles for just about every church in Ecclesia (and from my vantage point, those outside Ecclesia too).
Here is what we must remember though- in these moments where we face challenges – we are not alone! We know this to be true right? Jesus told us he would be with us always, until the end of the age (Matthew 28). He also told us that he would not leave us as orphans, but send another comforter (John 14). We are not alone. Yet, why do so many church leaders feel alone?
I would suggest that often we feel alone because we face our challenges alone. We can be isolated as congregations, and therefore are more isolated from help when the attacks of the enemy or the effects of sin break forth in our midst. I dare say that churches that only look to themselves locally (fellow pastors, boards, elders, congregants, etc) always fare worse than those that look beyond their local context for help and support. Always.
Jesus left us with the reality of his presence through the impartation of the Holy Spirit in perpetuity. The Holy Spirit takes it’s primary residence in relationship to the people of God, and this is not simply a “local church” reality. It’s clear in the New Testament that there is a “local church” and a “universal church” but there is also a “regional church.” Whether this was the church in a region or a wider city (i.e. letter to Colossians), or most often referenced to the trans-local band of apostles and evangelists and prophets and teachers that worked among and throughout the early church, it’s clear that there was a concrete and personal community that was intended to exist in fellowship beyond a local congregation, even outside its own city. There is a fairly good basis to say that the strength of the New Testament church was at least partially in relation to a local congregation having a proactive relationship to this “middle” space between the local and universal. I think that today, even occasionally among Ecclesia churches, we have a tendency to forget the vital role the “trans-local church” carries.. It is the “network” level of church that keeps the local congregation from becoming myopic or insulated within its own locality. It’s the “network” level that helps make the universal church concrete and un-ethereal.
It seems that we are at a time in our nation when it’s hard to make friends, but it’s easy to make enemies. I can’t tell you the number of people I have heard that have been “de-friended” or ridiculed for expressing a political opinion one way or another. I know of many sincere, non-ideological followers of Christ that have been vilified by suggesting they may vote for Trump, and many sincere, non-ideological followers of Christ that have been vilified for suggesting they may vote for Clinton. Recently, some of the prominent, Christian, political operatives in our country have even demeaned those who are suggesting that their conscience cannot allow them to vote for President at all. Indeed, we seem to be able to easily identify an enemy.
I’ve come to the point where I have great compassion and empathy for anyone who has struggled with this decision – whether to vote Trump, or Clinton, or neither (or other). To those who say they intend to vote for Trump because of the Supreme Court alone, or their wish to “stick it” to the political principalities and powers, I understand. To those who intend to vote for Clinton because of her concern for the poor or her advocacy for women across the globe, not to mention the significance of having a woman in the oval office, I too understand. When I think about my own faith, and the fact that by voting I am still personally endorsing two bad options, I am inclined to not vote at all. And here, it is possible, that any of these words may create an enemy for me.
Often I find myself these days coming back to the one thing I know to be supreme above all, and that is Jesus and the church he founded. These are realities that are concrete and far less ambiguous. In a time when enemies are being created by the day, we have something very important to offer – a reality check for who the real enemy is.
In 2 Corinthians 4 we are reminded that the God of this world has blinded the eyes of those who do not believe. Ephesians 6 tells us that we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities and powers. 1 Peter warns us that the devil is roaming about like a roaring lion, seeking whom to devour. As Christians we know who the real enemy is – or do we?
The other day when my daughter was sick, I sat and watched the Disney movie Mulan with her. The main antagonist in the story – Shan Yu – was spoken of often. He was identified by the protagonists, they did their best to develop a strategy to defeat him, and it was clear they were aware (and in that case, concerned) about him. It was clear to them who the enemy was and you could tell by the amount of “air time” he got. If you looked at most churches today, across the theological spectrum, one thing is mostly certain: in few places would any neutral observer be able to identify who we actually believe our real enemy is. In our more progressive circles, we are doubtful that the Satan even exists. If he does, it is in some elusive and undiscernible form. Our more conservative circles are not too altogether different (though some corners of both Charismaticism/Pentecostalism are an exception). While we believe that the scriptures say the Satan is real, we rarely speak of him, also attributing his actions to some elusive and undiscernible form (and most of the “spiritual realm” we handle similarly). For those among us who are Centrist, I find that we believe in the devil and often know that he is really acting, but because we know that most in our congregations fall to one side or the other of us in this area, we rarely speak of our sub-human enemy at all. It’s no wonder we have so many other enemies – we can’t identify a personality big enough to occupy everything we need to lay at the feet of all that we disdain. C.S. Lewis was right when he said, “if the devils exist, their first aim is to give you an anesthetic – to put you off your guard. Only if that fails, do you become aware of them.
Herein is our great opportunity – name the devil – identify his works – articulate a strategy for his defeat – don’t let him blind us as well. When is the last time you preached a sermon, or led a study, on how to deal with the devil? Can you recall if you have exorcised a demon? Or, how about something less overt? Have you prayed against the devil and his schemes? Have you incorporated this important element of our faith into your liturgy? (You would need to have written it yourself as most liturgies omit this critical dimension of our faith). So, how can you begin to inform and equip your congregation to deal with the devil and his works? Jesus dealt with the reality of the devil quite often. So should we.
This is not a “devil or demon under every rock” theology. As best as I understand, the bible does not present the picture of a devil that is omni-present. There are also limitations on demons and we are clearly told in the scriptures that the devil can, even now, be defeated and that the demons tremble at the name of Jesus (James 4, Matthew 8, Mark 5). We should be so bold to speak his name, proclaim his blood, and give witness to our testimony (Rev. 12).
To my fellow pastors and leaders, I know that many of us fall into the category of leaders who believe the devil exist, who understand him to be a real personality, as well as being engaged in the “systems” of the world. Yet, never talking about him is exactly his wish. I suspect that he is happy to defer his glory for his gratification. It’s time we fight back – for this is something that ONLY a Christian can do. Indeed, this is the enemy we need to fight in these days.
There are some occasions when I wish that I was an actual Bishop. One of those repeated moments is when I find out that a church within Ecclesia is about to go through a pastoral transition. In fact, I cringe almost every time that I first get the news. Quite honestly this is born out of the pain of seeing several new churches (and some within Ecclesia) carry out the process of transition so poorly. Normally, the transition decimates them to the degree that it sets the congregation on an inevitable path of closure. What is most unfortunate about this is that prior to the change, they were actually quite vital. Up until recently, Ecclesia has offered help in each of these situations for the churches in our network (and even some without). I can tell you that in the situations our outside guidance has been received, the church has found itself on a good path. In those situations where it has not (which is more often than I wish) in every situation, the church has been crippled or killed.
Transitions are hard for all churches, but they are particularly hard for churches that have never gone through them before. I’m not saying that the Ecclesia staff or other member churches are all knowing when it comes to pastoral changes, but in an abundance of counsel there is wisdom. More than likely, our collective experience is greater than any of our individual churches.
Here are the common mistakes I see made for younger congregations.
Mistake # 1: The Lead Pastor or Founding Pastor assumes that the church they started will be fine. They are almost always wrong. If a church has been around a few dozen years and has seen a transition or two, they have weathered these storms before. They are also not nearly as likely to be as attached to the pastor, as they have already had a few.
Mistake # 2: The Lead Pastor or Founding Pastor leaves too quickly. For most churches, a month between announcement and departure is a good timeline. If it’s a retirement, longer is better and more tenable. However, in most new congregations, longer is needed. Usually 3-6 months is ideal.
Mistake # 3: The church chooses the wrong interim leadership plan. If the transition of the Founding Pastor cripples a new congregation, the wrong interim leadership plan is often a death blow. The most honest reason for this is that young congregations are overwhelmed at the departure and also over stretched in time. Typically they will choose interim leadership without the qualification that they cannot be considered for long-term leadership. It should be clear that all interim situations cannot be the eventual situation to all parties. Obviously, there may be rare exceptions, but they should be considered only at the very end of a leadership search or discernment process.
Mistake # 4: The church chooses the wrong successor or successors to the founding pastor.
More often than not, they choose someone internal to the congregation. This may or may not be a good choice. However, in our network, it should be a choice where other Ecclesia leaders look at and say “that makes sense”. I have seen too many churches fail to heed our council. None of them have done well.
It is common practice to receive outside guidance during transition and for a new leadership situation to be affirmed from those “close” but not “in” the congregation.
Mistake # 5: In a shared leadership situation, it is assumed that one of the other leaders is the right choice.
This is a further application of the previous mistake. Shared leadership is a complicated scenario. Whereas I used to be an advocate of shared leadership, I now see its many pitfalls, despite my internal optimism that it should “work”. Its pitfalls are often most obvious in times of transition. The major problem with shared leadership is there is the lack of an honest account of “why” it works when it does. My experience on this is wide-ranging and I only know of 3 situations where those in shared leadership had an internal and shared understanding of why it works and the gifts they each bring. When that happens shared leadership can be beautiful, when it does not, transitions expose the cracks that were typically unspoken or obvious to those outside.
Mistake # 6: Not involving the founding pastor in the future direction.
While I can often understand the rationale for excluding the previous leader in the future picture, among those who have started the church, I believe it should be held open for their inclusion. I further believe that an external reference should be a primary guide on whether or not they should be. From one angle, if the transition has come under good and noble circumstances, then there is likely no person more vested in seeing the church thrive upon their departure. They also have a certain objective proximity that is invaluable. The main reason I would suggest not involving them is if they have any associations of guilt or burnout with their departure. These two realities typically make the founder un-objective.
Why am I communicating this now?
I’ve noticed these things for a long while and wanting to maintain our value of the “primacy of the local church” I have always offered to help in transition, but have been quiet when it has not been received. I know there are churches within Ecclesia going through transitions right now, and it’s possible that they will read this with an assumption that it is written for them specifically – it is not (though it is written for them generally).
I’m breaking my silence on this now for two reasons. First, I’m very tired of seeing churches in Ecclesia (and those like our congregations) decimated by poor transition. Almost always they are decimated needlessly. I am also observing, at this very moment, what appears to be the conclusion of a very good transition that Ecclesia was involved with and our outside input was greatly considered. Second, I’m returning from speaking to the entire Kentucky Methodist Annual Conference which happened to coincide with the retirement of Bishop Lindsay Davis. It was a joy and honor to attend his retirement celebration. He had been a good Bishop and it was obvious. His help and wisdom in seasons of difficulty within churches and the conference was particularly valued. Of course, he had the authority in which his help was not in question.
While I am not a Bishop, I have a Bishop’s care. The least I can do is speak plainly and provide a warning to all our churches and those like them elsewhere.
A few weeks ago I learned of a major event taking place in Los Angeles that coincided with the 110th anniversary of the Azusa Street Revival. Sponsored by Lou Engle and The Call, Azusa Now came about through a unique series of revelatory dreams, prophetic words, and a great deal of sacrifice from one leader. While reading Matthew 13, Lou Engle heard the Lord say to sell his house and purchase the field for the event. Quite a faith-filled act.
Even as a self-described charismatic (a subdued charismatic though), there are still things about this event that feel over the top to me. It’s also easy to dismiss some of this as a great deal of hype coinciding with the anniversary of the Azusa Street Revival, even though to the faith-filled heart, there are many supernatural circumstances that came together to bring this about. The hope is that over 100,000 people will gather to pray for revival, the unity of the church, and for God’s miraculous outpouring. The whole assertion of a big gathering to pray for revival easily touches the skeptic in me. When I think back historically, none of the great awakenings or revivals seemed to start by a large meeting. In fact, they mostly seem unplanned, but yet born out of a great deal of almost invisible prayer from disciple to disciple and congregation to congregation.
The question that has caught me though as I have tried to find myself leaning into this moment is – “Do You Want Revival Chris?” “Would You Really Like To See It Happening?” Do I want to see people come to Christ and experience the power of Jesus? Do I want to see bible studies over-filled with people yearning to engage the scriptures? Do I want to see healings take place and miracles occur? Do I want to see the church growing and thriving with a humble, Christ-like authority? Do I want to see our tremendous racial barriers broken in our nation? Wouldn’t I want it? These are all the fruits of revival.
Among many leaders of the variety that pay attention to Ecclesia or Missio Alliance or anywhere in the “missional” conversation, my guess would be that your response to something like this wouldn’t be very different than mine. Like me, you may have to work yourself through your first, second, and maybe even third layers of skepticism to get to the point in your heart where you would come to realize that actually you do want it to. Even if you don’t think it will happen, hopefully you would want an awakening to occur.
I remember Dallas Willard telling me that the first question he would ask any skeptical philosophy student who would walk into his office is “Do you want there to be a God? And, if so, would you want Him to be like Jesus”? Of course, his point was that our mind (and therefore our actions) will have a hard time being open to that which our heart is closed toward. So, here, I ask to my wide-ranging friends who somehow find themselves around the “missional” conversation, Do you want, in your heart, a great awakening? If so, could you begin to pray for it? Even if you pray in a way that would protect you from disappointment if it doesn’t happen?
Now that I’ve realized that I really do hope that something happens, I can pray that something will happen. And, I can pray in a way that unashamedly asks Jesus to pour our His Spirit upon His people and our land. Would you join me? And if that skeptic in your rears its head, ask yourself, “don’t I want this?” I can’t imagine that you wouldn’t.